By Cletus Nelson

In the spring of 1945 a total new phase of my military life was in process. We were closing up our Advanced Detachment Air Base A-1 in Western China and returning all ground crews to our main base near Chukulla in India. Our air crews, planes and support crews were already on their way for one last trip across the Hump, then out over the huge bulk of China to the Western Pacific and the Marianas Islands for their new operation bases on Tinian Island. We, who were closing up our China and India bases, had many different and unusual assignments for that effort.

As a sort of “free-floating” Aircraft Engineering Maintenance Officer, and with no airplanes around demanding my time, I was selected to take a convoy of trucks loaded with all our specially classified documents and reports into the shipment point in Calcutta for loading on ships bound for Tinian Island.

The trucks, drivers, jeeps, and non-coms, were provided by a supply outfit in the area. They were from Ondahl where we had a large supply depot. They had made this drive to Calcutta before and knew their way through the varied jungle and arid areas.

The convoy consisted of five GMC six-by-six canvas covered trucks) to obscure the contents and for protection during the trip), preceded by my Jeep driven by a staff sergeant and followed by a second jeep, also driven by a sergeant and his assistant corporal. We all carried appropriate side arms. Because of the classified content of the loads, we were all duly sworn under oath to guard and handle the activity with “all due effort”.

army truck convoy

An American truck convoy prepares to roll.

Early one pleasant spring Indian day, we left Chukulla and headed out across the flat agricultural area. This was a route with scrub trees along the way on a primitive gravel road for the 80-some miles to Calcutta at the junction of the Hoogly River and the Ganges River where they flow into the Indian Ocean below the large delta area.

At mid-day, we arrived (per schedule) at an Army Signal Corps outpost in the jungle area. Surrounded by trees and enduring heavy humidity, these soldiers had constructed a small camp of American-style barracks right beside the road. They were the maintenance support for the communication lines to that area. We opened our box lunches in the shade of the trees by the side of the road and got to observe the GI’s there in what appeared to be a regular routine. This daily event involved the native ladies who supported the camps and its personnel in a friendly, open manner.

After an uneventful morning and early afternoon, we arrived right on schedule at an important ferry boat crossing of a wide tributary of the Hoogly River about 10 miles west of Calcutta. This was a critical point as the ferry boats only ran about once an hour and often the native traffic would load them fully with little or no room for our military traffic. We pulled into the line for boarding and waited for the ferry to return from its latest crossing. There were three groups ahead of us, also waiting. This was a good position as the ferry could handle much more than that any one time.

We pulled our vehicles up into a very tight bumper-to-bumper line so that we could get out and walk and still watch and guard the contents. The remains of our box lunches were broken out and we relaxed and socialized, sharing appropriate tales of exploits and past experiences.

At this point, a noisy ruckus started developing behind us in another group consisting of natives with their loads of farm goods going to market. Immediately being on guard for any potential distraction from our duties, we gathered close to our trucks, while trying to see what was happening. Soon a couple of bicycles came toward us with a couple of native Indians riding and shouting for the attention of “Americans”! Both were in the uniform of local policemen, but we still were not quite sure what their ruckus was about.

As they came to the rear vehicle of our convoy, a sergeant stepped out to meet them, then brought them forward to me. Their progress was punctuated with lots of comments and waving of arms. Finally we were able to understand that an American soldier was in trouble in the nearby village and needed help beyond the services that the locals could give.

My staff sergeant and I decided this was a genuine emergency. We did this, fully realizing that by investigating the crisis, it meant leaving the convoy (strictly against the rules), and possibly missing the ferry. I assigned responsibilities to the rest of the crew and told them to go ahead. I stressed that if I did not return in time, they should make sure that the classified material was guarded over night. With that, we loaded the bikes onto our jeep, and under the guidance of the policemen, headed back into the village which was nearby but on a different road from one we had traveled to get to the ferry.

As we came into the little village, the road (actually the main street) made an almost 60 degree bend right in the middle of town over a small stream that flowed through that exact point. Many years before, probably several hundred, these Eastern Indians had built an arch bridge from native stone over the stream for their local traffic. The bridge had a bend in it of about 60 degrees, in a part of the arch over the water in the streambed. Side rails of native stone gave support, protection, and angle of direction to traffic moving over the arch. The sidewalls of the bridge were native stone, very uneven in size and shape. Some projected out into the roadway more than others. These were about two-feet and four-feet high, with a layer of smooth stone all along the top. The roadway was wide enough for one way vehicles if they were small and if negotiated carefully over the arch and bend.

trucks ledo road

American trucks drive on the Ledo Road. Open from India into Burma.

At the crest of the arch of the bridge displayed very prominently, there was a large U.S. Army Cab-Ovre truck tractor and a flatbed semi-trailer loaded with wooden trusses.

The truck was sitting there with the engine idling. My sergeant stopped our jeep at the foot of the bridge and he and I went up to the cab of the Cab-Over truck where we could see a soldier sitting inside. The door on the driver’s side was hanging open. The driver was a young U.S. Army corporal. He was slumped forward onto the steering wheel and apparently asleep. As I reached out to touch the corporal’s shoulder, I suddenly realized that something was not right, and a slow chill went down my spine and a prickly feeling went through my back and arms.

These Cab-Over tractors did not have power-steering in those days. The steering mechanism was a direct linkage from the steering wheel down to the road wheels. When the truck hit a bump, the shock went directly back up to the steering wheel. Evidently, the driver of this rig had steered his left front wheel too close to the side-rail rocks and hit one that projected into the roadway. He had been turning slightly to his right to make the 60 degree curve at the top of the arch but when his road wheel hit the rock, it spun everything to the left and the truck stopped abruptly. Apparently, the corporal didn’t follow general safety instructions. His hands and perhaps arms dangled inside the rim of the steering wheel, probably with his palms turned out, and his fingers around the rim. This was often the way of commercial truck drivers who didn’t follow safety rules. Although this was actually a comfortable way to drive, it did not conform to standard safety guidelines.

When the left front wheel stopped and spun quickly to the left, the steering when spun rapidly to the left, catching the driver’s arms inside the spokes and rimes immediately snapping both right forearm bones with the force of the sudden rotating steering wheel.

The ragged break in the bones and their puncture through the flesh was undoubtedly very painful and he lost consciousness, which is how we found him when the sergeant and I arrived.

Of course in the process, the staled truck completely blocked any traffic over the bridge which was what probably got the attention of the police and what brought them down to the landing to seek help.

Significantly, the second detail of this accident involved the size of the trailer. My drivers told me later that the maximum size permitted on that particular stretch of road (even though the road was used as a short cut for going to the ferry) was the 40-foot semi-trailer. It was not lawful to drive longer trailers and 70-foot trailers were definitely not permitted there. This rig was a very full 70-foot job and probably would never have been able to negotiate the bridge. But the driver was in that spot, so he attempted the crossing. Slowly, and with a sinking feeling in my stomach, I touched the driver’s arm and bent it forward as far as I could. I needed to see what condition the bones in the broken right arm were in. I could see the arm had a compound fracture of both bones and one of the jagged bones had sashed through the corporal’s skin. The second bone pushed a bulge in the skin with a deep red color. There was practically no blood anywhere, and to this day I am puzzled about that but have no hint as to why or how that could be. The whole scene was horrific and I tried to appraise the situation and figure out what could be done. While my thoughts were thus involved, the sergeant had squirmed in under me and reached up to turn off the truck engine.

The sergeant and I settled back and said nothing as we pondered the situation. I commented that somehow, we had to set the broken arm and secure it safely so that we could move the corporal from the truck cab. Somewhere in my memory, I called back some simple basic first aid training I had received, and deep inside, I knew I had to pull on all my resources to do the job.

First I found the corporal’s trench knife, a sturdy, unbendable device with a firm six-inch handle and about an eight-inch blade in an equally sturdy sheath and scabbard. I took off the driver’s belt and prepared to use the knife and the belt as splits on the arm. Then, with my sergeant on the right side and me on the left at the wheel, I slowly moved the broken arm down and stretched the damage tissues as far as I could so that the broken ends retreated inside the arm into their place without creating any more damage. I carefully inched the forearm into alignment with the bones of the upper arm. All the while, the sergeant was holding the corporal’s body steady against my pulling, helping with an extra hand anywhere he could.

Next I took the trench knife and placed it on top of the rejoined forearm and then put the scabbard on the bottom of the arm, using both sturdy items as splints. I wrapped the corporal’s web belt around arm and splints quite tightly as to shut off flow of blood to the damaged tissues. The broken forearm could rest against the steering wheel next to the good left arm.

Now came the task of getting the corporal out of the truck cab. Here, the sergeant’s strength came into play and between us, we lifted the inert body up and out of the high cab, down the side of the truck and to the lower part of the bridge, checking to be sure that the splints held in place. Using hand signals and short English words, we learned that there was a native doctor’s office about two blocks from where we were. Putting the jeep into four-wheel drive and the lowest gear, the sergeant eased the vehicle down into the creek bed and up the other side where we had placed the corporal. Again, we lifted and loaded him into the jeep, and were speedily en route to the native doctor.

By now both the sergeant and I were physically trembling and not too stable from the experience and our ensuing exertion. We had some relief in sight, though, and that buoyed our actions. We exchanged brief comments on our way to the center of town.

At the doctor’s office, communication was a little better as he could speak English haltingly. His office nurse spoke no English at all. The doctor took his supply of morphine and gave the corporal an injection of the drug which quickly took effect. However, this was all the morphine that the doctor had. We found ourselves under a time limit and the clock was ticking away.

The doctor checked the splits and belt and said he should not change anything. He told us that what we had done was O.K. at that time and showed a lot of resourcefulness. Quickly, we got the corporal into the jeep although this time, he was able to respond a little and helped. We resumed our journey back to the ferry.

Oh yes, I did stop at the truck and managed to move it to the center of the roadway. Then I hand-signaled and talked to the policemen who had stayed with us all the way. I got their agreement to stay with the truck as guards until other soldiers could come for it. At least I hope that is what our conversation was about; it was all I had time for.

Now I was concerned about the convoy and the ferry and it was getting late in the afternoon.

At the ferry site, all the vehicles and people had gone on an earlier trip. Fortunately for us, the returning ferry was n sight and shortly was docked, unloaded, and we began loading. We chugged across the river and rejoiced that we were finally on our way to Calcutta. We checked our maps and saw that five miles down the road, there was an indication of some unknown military station on the left. We followed that road and soon we were in a small U.S. Army supply camp that had an infirmary, medics, morphine, and facilities. The medics took x-rays, found the arm properly set, applied new splits, gave medications, and put the corporal to bed. They said they would take care of notifying proper authorities as well as arrange for another driver to get the truck. Additionally, they promised to get a good supply of morphine back to the native Indian doctor.

Now there was only one more requirement—catch up with the convoy and make sure we were present when the secure goods were signed in. My sergeant and I were back on the road and driving rapidly in the early evening dusk. We reached Calcutta and the receiving station Justas the convoy was being positioned for unloading. We took our positions, assumed our duties and signed everything and no one said anything about our experience.

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  • Bill Getz says:

    Cletus Nelson is a good personal friend who is my neighbor here in my Northern California retirement community. He is 95 years old, mentally sharp and has written literally hundreds of articles about WWII, mostly for family and local consumption. All of his stories are of great interest and well-written. Perhaps the editors will publish more.

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